Technology & libraries & children… oh dear?

I am not a librarian catering to babies and small children.  However, I am a mother of a young child and deeply supportive of / interested in / engaged with libraries, so when a mother-friend asked me a question yesterday about children, libraries, and technology, I just have not been able to get it out of my mind.

The question

My friend goes regularly to a public library with her two children (one six months and one three years).  The children’s section of this library recently got computers and placed them on very low tables in the area catering to the under 4 crowd (e.g. board books are nearby).  Her older son now, understandably, zooms in and becomes entranced by the glowing screen of wonder.  When they move to look at books, the inevitable bloops and beeps emanating from the row of enticing screens call to him and make it hard to focus on the books.  She asked me if there was anything she could say or do to avoid this exposure to screens for her young kids.  Her dread and discomfort were palpable as she explained that she heard the library was soon to start using iPads in the same section.  She doesn’t want to stop going to this library as it’s got wonderful programming and is a convenient location, but she is committed to minimizing screen time.

My first reactions

Well, my gut reactions at the time were:

  1. Libraries are universally excited about implementing technologies of all sorts (I cited our 3-D printer and the makerspace movement).
  2. This library probably got some grant to do this and really feel it fits with their mission; and there’s probably not much she can do.
  3. That said, since she was nervous about approaching the librarians at that library (for fear they would label her ‘that outraged mom’ – I assured her, if the librarians are at all ethical and good at their jobs, even if they felt that way about her they’d never let on :-P), she could go to our local library which does not use technology to this extent in the children’s section and inquire about what is happening at the other library, why, and what kinds of questions or requests she could make (and how to make them) so that this point will resonate with them.

This suggestion felt highly unsatisfactory, and the issue started to get me annoyed as well.  I did a little more thinking and a little digging and here are some things that are floating around in, as Hercule Poirot calls them, my little grey cells.

My thoughts 12 hours later

Public (and all) libraries are constantly thinking about relevance, new and exciting services, and how best to meet patron needs and desires (both known and unknown to the patrons).  There is a lot of energy around reinventing library spaces with a primary focus on building and doing.  These are common refrains when accused of being irrelevant in the face of “everything being online” (everything is not online, and libraries now do so much more than provide print books but those are other stories for others to tell).   Lots of good is coming from this, especially with regard to offering technological workshops and gadgets, and of course free internet – all of which serve to minimize the digital divide; a deep, systemic, socioeconomic problem that public libraries have been a part of tackling.

All of this energy can be contextualized, too, against a backdrop of a long-standing philosophical conversation around providing what the people want (Fifty Shades of Grey! Romance novels! Cookbooks!) versus providing what’s good for them, what’s educationally, morally, and ethically valuable for the community (this book by Wayne Bivens-Tatum has a nice chapter talking about the history of public libraries).

Alright, but what if what people want is in some way bad for them?

The American Academy of Pediatrics says (my emphasis added),

Television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2. A child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.

They also say,

The AAP recommends that parents establish “screen-free” zones at home by making sure there are no televisions, computers or video games in children’s bedrooms, and by turning off the TV during dinner. Children and teens should engage with entertainment media for no more than one or two hours per day, and that should be high-quality content. It is important for kids to spend time on outdoor play, reading, hobbies, and using their imaginations in free play.

I just see such a conflict with these statements and all the energy and excitement around integrating technology into the children’s sections of libraries.  A few brief searches of the Association for Library Service to Children’s blog posts suggests an overwhelming excitement and enthusiasm for exposing children of all ages to technology.  I don’t think that’s inherently bad, but I feel very very unhappy about posts like this one which argues that only passive screen time is bad screen time and that rich experiences (like learning a programming language or creating something on an iPad) are great.  I think learning programming languages and playing with iPads can be rich learning experiences, but there’s nuance too:  how many hours a day is a child glued to their minecraft game?  How old are they?  Again, as the AAP states,

Studies have shown that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity.

The ALSC does have some posts addressing this age question.  Here’s one advocating for screen-free story time that I really like as it grounds its points in the AAP recommendation.  I love how Kleckner closes:

The new screens and screen uses are in many ways exciting and even amazing. They are part of a very new and enormous cultural change in how technology is used today. Still, screen use is not appropriate and beneficial everywhere, for everyone, at every occasion. Like at the family dinner table or while driving, story times at the library are best without it.

Yes.  Agree.  100%.  And I’m surprised the ALSC doesn’t have any statements to this effect at all.  What advisories I did find on their website related to helping young patrons avoid stumbling onto explicit and dangerous content online (and even this was written 15 years ago at this point).  Real missed opportunity in my opinion.

There is a sense that if children don’t get on the tech bandwagon, they’ll be at a disadvantage.  And again, that digital divide across jarringly unequal socioeconomic lines is real.  But, where does this leave us?  Are the children’s sections of public libraries talking about this?  Are they and the AAP connecting?  Are parents just clamoring for tablets and other technologies and therefore libraries are simply providing services that are being asked for?  What’s the ethically right thing to do in this case?  Is this just an extension of whatever reasons a public library will stock Fifty Shades of Grey?  Or is there something more here that should make us pause and think again about the technology we are offering to our youngest among us?

What say you, children’s library workers??


Monday Thought

I talk to my grandfather pretty regularly on the phone.  This is great for many reasons.  But I thought I’d share with you all, gentle readers, what he tells me often when I talk to him on Monday mornings:

Ah Monday, another week in which to excel.

What a lovely thought.  So, to you all, here’s to another week in which to excel.  Go forth and make the most of it!

Search Engine Librarians?

A few days ago, my dad sent me this blog post.  Does that happen to you?  Everyone you know sends you blog posts that relate to librar* & book*?  Well, I really enjoy it – because it means people are thinking about libraries.  It also gives me a window into what they think about libraries and librarians.  And it gives me a chance to push their boundaries.  More on that in a minute.

Super Librarian Poster. Available from Sarah McIntyre at:

I liked the blog post a lot – it’s sweet.  It was a post by the person who created the image to the right here, and she wanted to provide the file for download for free as she had learned that others were charging for it.  And so, if you are interested, you should go to the post and download her poster for free if you like it too!  My dad emailed it with the intent of spreading the librarian love (“hey here’s this blog post about librarians and how great they are, I think I’ll send it to Sarah”).  And it’s really a nice concept.  One that resonates with today’s public.  People find and access resources via search engines these days for the post part, and so here’s a little poster that reminds folks that librarians can be really helpful and important to the search process too.  All very nice.

But, it did remind me of another blog post I had seen a while back decrying the equation of librarians and search engines.  Rory Litwin, over at Library Juice, explains that librarians fill so many more functions than just search.  Librarians are selectors, organizers, curators, preservers, Litwin says.  I’d add teacher and technologist to the list.

I get what Litwin is saying, but I also see how the intent of such a phrase (that librarians are like search engines) is meant to be a positive thing; meant to make librarians less invisible in the search process for patrons.  So, I emailed my dad back that the post he sent was really cool – and I liked the poster a lot!  But I also sent him Litwin’s post and explained that librarians do a lot:  search, but also many things relating to organizing & providing access to resources, teaching, developing information systems, etc.  So we all learned something.  What a lovely thing – particularly apropos because my dad’s parting words every morning when I would head off for the day were:

Have a happy day, and learn a lot!

So, dear readers, I hope you have a happy day and learn a lot.

Enter the freshpeople…

This summer, I have had the great pleasure to be picked to give a short orientation to incoming undergraduate students at the University of Michigan.  My role, in their two day orientation session, is to give a 10 minute spiel on GSIs, graduate student instructors:  who they are, what they do, what they’re good for, etc.  What fun!

First, a digression:  I love new students.  Love them.  In my family, the first day of school was more momentous than most major holidays.  We always baked chocolate chip cookies and talked about the day on the first day of school.  In fact, my husband is entering his 3rd year of medical school tomorrow and the fresh batch of cookies have just been pulled from the oven.  It smells delightful in here.  So, the first day of school is so very magical to me (oh gosh, do I wax poetic about that or what?!).  When I taught Introduction to Global Change, every fall, I tried to always sign up for the very first sections of the week (Monday or Tuesday sections) so that when first year students took my course, I would be their FIRST introduction to college discussion sections.  I could set that tone!  Set their expectations high!  Ah.  I love that.  So, when the Office of New Student Programs at UM emailed me about giving an orientation to incoming undergraduates, I was thrilled.

My little talk is preceded by an undergraduate and followed by a professor giving their thoughts on what it’s like to be a student, and the role of the professor.  All three of our bits thematically cluster around advice for how to transition to college, become an adult, take charge and make the most of their short four years at this amazing institution.  It’s a nice orientation session, and I think we emphasize well enough to the students that they’re adults and can make their own choices from now on.  They are the ones deciding how to manage their time and what courses to take and what extracurricular activities to be involved in… They will have support in the form of RAs, academic advisors, professors, GSIs, and their peers, but ultimately they’re on their way to becoming independent adults!  How exciting!

Response to “Honest tips for wannabe archivists out there”

I really like the ArchivesNext blog.  This is just a quick post to say that.  For example, I think Kate did a nice job summarizing a debate that went on over Twitter in a recent post and reiterating some really important points.  The debate was around loving the “stuff” of archives and libraries versus loving helping others have access to the “stuff.”  Apparently at the ACRL’s Rare Book and Manuscript Section 2012 conference someone said (and then this was subsequently tweeted):

If you love ”the stuff,” you’re closer to getting a job in archives and special collections.

Well, Kate respectfully disagreed, replying:

If you love books/old stuff, collect them. If you love helping people have access to information, become a librarian/archivist.

I think there is an assumption that people come into the (archival, and perhaps preservation?) profession specifically to deal with old stuff and shy away from people and technology.  I’m not totally sure that’s true; I wonder what the results would be of a survey of incoming students to library and information schools around the kinds of materials and collections they saw themselves dealing with in the future.  Really, what percent of these folks honestly think archives are musty old inaccessible places?  My hunch would be that many majored in history and used archives in their undergraduate research and thought that could be a good career path.  But, I didn’t see many fellow students thinking they would only work with paper archives.  Perhaps that’s a product of the incredibly tech-friendly atmosphere of UM’s School of Information, though.

In any case, there ARE old materials out there, and that old (paper) stuff needs curators.  Who are we to imply that we can’t enter this profession loving the stuff and setting up a dichotomy of loving the stuff OR loving providing access to the stuff/loving helping people/loving technology.  I think a healthy dose of loving the “stuff” of your collections can help you help your patrons much better, in a library or an archive.  I, personally, love interacting with people and it’s partly why I went to an information school:  I adored teaching but did not want to teach full-time.  I wanted to be a part of academia, facilitate scholarship, facilitate education and I saw that an information school would help me gain the skills to do that.  I also love science (and STEM) resources, so it’s a dream of mine to help patrons who are interested in those resources.  I love stuff AND people AND technology!  And that’s okay 🙂

On the topic of technology, I think it’s incredibly useful to feel comfortable with technology, if not well-versed in technology.  But, not everyone does.  My school was excellent at providing exposure to technology to students, but for people graduating with a bit more uneasiness around technology or for those who have been in the profession for a while and the technology has drastically changed, I think it’s the onus (or great pleasure?) of the organization to support its staff in pursuing professional development opportunities to become a bit more fluent in whatever useful technologies are out there.

Kate’s post also had a really nice list of advice for those pondering the archives profession and the comments section added to that discussion.  I encourage you to read it!